How to Save our Suburbs

There is a very interesting article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal called “How SoHo can save the Suburbs”, by Richard Florida. The article is about how our post WWII car oriented suburbs are losing out to closer in more walkable communities and what some suburban communities are doing about it. You can read the entire article here.

I think there are some good lessons here for us in the Birmingham area, including neighborhoods such as Crestwood, Vestavia Hills, Hoover and Roebuck, all built after the war based on the automobile and its easy mobility.

The article mentions a Brookings Institute Study that reports that the number of poor people in the suburbs has grown by 37.4 % since 2000, compared to 16.7% in cities. According to the WSJ article, this is due to the gentrification of inner city neighborhoods, which is displacing some of the urban poor to the suburbs.

I reviewed some census data for our area, which is somewhat mixed, but is basically in line with this conclusion. I reviewed the data on school age children for Hoover, Birmingham, Vestavia hills and Homewood to see how poverty has changed from 1997 to 2008, the latest data available. Information on total poverty is not yet available for the past decade, but this seems to me to be a comparable measure.

According to this data, the number of school age children age 5 to 17 in poverty increased just over 400% in Hoover while the total Hoover school age population has increased only 150% in the same period. Compare that to Birmingham, which has seen a decrease of 26% in the number of school age children in poverty along with an 18% decline in total school age children in the same period.  Apparently, more of the families leaving Birmingham were poor ones, seeking better schools for their kids perhaps. Homewood has seen an 238% increase in poor school aged children, compared to a 122% increase increase in total children.Vestavia’s ratio of poor to total school age children has not changed as much, but the total number of poverty stricken children has increased 156% compared to a 143% increase in total school age population. So, even Vestavia is getting poorer.

We have also seen for our selves how closer in, more walkable communities like Forest Park, Highland Park, South Highlands, Redmont and Crestwood have thrived or been “gentrified” as people have invested in remodeling and restoring the aging housing stock. Home prices have soared in these areas compared to the suburbs over the last few decades, and have seen less decline in the current deflationary environment. These neighborhoods are close to UAB, the area’s largest employer, which explains much of their appeal, especially to young professionals. But they also are more walkable, with their sidewalks, thru streets and mature trees. Neighborhoods just north of downtown, like Norwood, are also beginning to see some gentrification, for similar reasons. Vestavia and Hoover have seen some redevelopment of these areas, with mixed success, but not as strong as downtown Homewood, and the villages of Mountain brook.

It is pretty obvious to me that  auto dominated suburban cities like Vestavia Hills and Hoover, while holding their own, have seen signs of serious decay over the last fee decades.  Significant areas of both city’s commercial districts began to decline when traffic shifted from Highway 31 to Interstate 65.  The construction of the Riverchase Galleria Mall in the  mid 80’s and the Summit around the turn of the twenty-first century have also contributed to this decline, as suburban shoppers abandoned the old malls in Vestavia and Hoover for these new venues. While some have been redeveloped, rents and thus commercial property values have declined. Many “big boxes” are still empty.

The auto dominated parts of Homewood and Birmingham have also seen significant decline. The first mall east of the Mississippi, Eastwood Mall, has been demolished to make way for a new Wal-mart center, and the adjacent Century Plaza is completely shuttered, victims of the Summit.  Wildwood Center straddling the Homewood / Birmingham border and only 20 years old, is half vacant ( more if you consider that the west end has been torn down). The north side of the Wildwood development is bit more vibrant, anchored as it is by several large employers and the only Lowes in the area, but much of the retail is vacant as well. Conceived as the gateway to the now accessible west Oxmoor areas of Shades Valley, Wildwood was actually more successful due to its adjacency to the growing affluence of Homewood, as the promised development  of the west Oxmoor Valley failed to materialize. It too is a victim of newer shopping centers and Homewood’s rediscovery of its own walkable downtown. The Walmart and Sam’s Club continue to do well, attracting shoppers from poorer neighborhoods of Birmingham to the north.

So, where an I going with all this? Current trends support a return to more traditional urban lifestyles. Federal policies are shifting away from subsidizing the automobile and more toward encouraging transit oriented, mixed use development and more diverse and dense settlements. If  cities like Hoover and Vestavia are to compete, survive and remain viable, they need to do more to make their cities walkable and bikable, as well as encourage more mixed use development, all the while embracing more economic diversity.  The article that is the inspiration for this posting describes how several suburban communities have successfully re-invented themselves, converting car dominated landscapes into denser, walkable mixed used areas.

These towns have succeeded in reversing, or at  least mitigating, the  trends leading people to move back to the old inner city neighborhoods  by becoming more livable, thus being better able to compete for the young professionals who seek a more sustainable and richer urban lifestyle.  These young people are the future, and towns that fail to attract them will  have no future except as havens for the displaced poor.